Identity Politics?

In 2007, I predicted to anyone who would listen that the Democrats would have their nominee at 8:01 Iowa time on the night of that state’s caucus. The effort to front-load the calendar, to give states other than Iowa and New Hampshire a bigger say in choosing the nominee, seemed destined to have the opposite effect, making it impossible to alter the contours of the race. Watching Barack Obama last night return to Iowa as he reached the goal of a majority of pledged delegates, I have to confess: I was way wrong. Yes, Obama won Iowa and did go on to win it all. But, not the way I intended. All this year, there has been a kind of anti-momentum at work. As soon as one candidate was up, the other rebounded with renewed strength. After Obama’s big win in Iowa, Clinton came back to take New Hampshire. Then, Obama came right back with a big win in South Carolina. After a draw on Super Tuesday, Obama won 11 straight contests in February before losing in Ohio and tying in Texas. Last night’s split decision in Kentucky and Oregon only mirrored what had gone before. Part of the reason for Clinton’s ability to stay in the race has to do with the essential strengths of her campaign. Few primary candidates have universal name recognition and virtually unlimited resources. (The Clintons have lent the campaign over $11 million, but they still have $90 million in the bank.) But in almost every primary campaign, once the nominee is anointed, a certain amount of buyer’s remorse sets in. In 1992, after Bill Clinton virtually swept the Super Tuesday contests, Jerry Brown came back with wins in Connecticut, Maryland and Colorado. Brown had a knack for this sort of thing, having won some late primaries against Jimmy Carter in 1976. But, the principal reason for Clinton’s staying power has been the different nature of her support. In contest after contest, she has built up from a base of support among white women who, depending upon the state, constitute a majority or near-majority of the electorate. Especially for older women, Clinton’s candidacy, whatever their views of her, represents a long hoped-for moment. Whenever it looked like Clinton was about to be thrown to the curb, or when an obnoxious comment seemed to smack of misogyny, women rallied to her cause. Back in New Hampshire, much was made of how wrong the polls were because they had predicted an Obama win. But, the polls predicted almost everyone’s final placing accurately except Clinton’s. Women turned out in droves to propel her to victory. Obama’s ability to ward of Clinton’s challenge is also rooted in the nature of his base. Young voters, affluent voters and African-Americans were largely unmoved by the controversies that came Obama’s way in the past few months. They stuck with their candidate through thick and thin seeing him as a vehicle for their dreams as women saw Clinton. It is stunning that after five months of intense campaigning, the difference between the two candidates on the issues is entirely negligible. So, the winner of the Iowa caucus did win the whole enchilada, but certainly not in the way I (or anyone else) expected. And, the size of Obama’s post-primary bounce will depend entirely on his ability to reach out to women who have been Clinton’s core supporters. I am chastened about making predications in this unpredictable year, but my guess is that women will come back to Obama in no time at all. Michael Sean Winters
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